Word Wednesday: The ‘Worldquake’ series by Scarlett Thomas



This Week’s Word Is “Worldquake.”

Back in the mists of time, before I had children, I used to work in a bookshop (the UK’s leading chain no less!). I used to tend the fiction section and tried to inspire people to read books they might not otherwise have heard of. One book I liked to press upon anybody who would listen was PopCo by Scarlett Thomas. It was fabulously geeky; a tale of trendy companies, math, family secrets, codebreaking, and Risk. I loved PopCo and have followed Thomas’ career ever since.

Fifteen years later, on the quiet, and never finding the time to review it, I have been reading Thomas’ Worldquake series. It’s very selfish keeping these delightful books to myself because they are probably three of the finest children’s books I’ve ever read.

I’ve been sharing the Worldquake books with my children and we’ve all been equally enthralled. Often storytime has stretched from the usual 15-20 minutes up towards 45. The books are fabulous to read aloud and sink their hooks in deep. You HAVE to keep reading. It’s amazing to me that the Worldquake series is not more wildly read. Publishing is a fickle business, and quality does not always bring success. I feel we need to make this right, so finally, here is a post devoted to this most wonderful series.

What Are the Worldquake books?

So far, they’re a series of three books, starting with Dragon’s Green, then The Chosen Ones, and finally the most recent installment Galloglass. Having read all of these three, there is definitely room for more. This series is going to run on and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

The books have gone from strength to strength, perhaps as Thomas has grown more confident about her creation. In comparison to the more complex themes and story arcs in The Chosen Ones and Galloglass, book one, Dragons Green, is a comparatively straightforward children’s, school-based, adventure novel.

Having said that, the setting does involve two parallel worlds bridged by magical portals, so we’re well beyond a traditional boarding school caper, here. The timing of the original novel is not entirely clear, but the eponymous “Worldquake” has knocked out a great deal of real-world technology, giving the novel an old-school feel. It transpires, deeper into the series, that the books are set a couple of hundred years into the future, after a climate disaster and then the mysterious Worldquake.

Several children are the heroes of the novel, although much of the story centers around Euphemia (Effie) Truelove. (Whose father is called Orwell Bookend and whose grandfather is a wizard. Her mother mysteriously disappeared on the night of the quake.) Effie discovers she has special powers and finds herself trying to understand her role across two worlds, the mundane and the magical. The children in the series attend the Tusitala School of the Gifted and Strange, where the teachers are called things like Mrs. Beathag-Hide. Thomas channels inspiration from Dickens, Rowling, and Dahl but blends it all to make something truly unique.

The series is filled with witches and wizards, True Heroes, evil secret societies, and sentient animals. As the books go on, the layers of plot and intrigue build up into something truly impressive, as do the amount of world-building details. The setting is rich in invention and contains among other things, a mysterious underworld, magical market, and a mystical library. The series also includes the delicious, magical concept of a “last edition,” book; the exact nature of which is a treat I won’t spoil for you. Frankly, there’s nothing in these books not to love.


Why Read the Worldquake Books?

These books are special. I talked in last week’s review of The Unspoken Name about how fantasy has evolved since I first started reading it 30+ years ago. Well, magic-in-school books have evolved too. Whilst Harry Potter has done wonders for literacy levels across the globe, some of its magic-boarding-school vibe is starting to look a little tired. The Worldquake books are Harry Potter’s natural successors and, I think, entirely superior. (I must confess to not being the biggest fan of Harry Potter. I gave up after book five, so do consider that when weighing up my statement.)

Thomas’ novels, particularly as they go on, reflect the era in which they have been written. They’re both inclusive and progressive. The central message of the books is to be who you want to be and the importance of free expression. The books do not shy away from issues either. None of the children have had easy lives and they are dealing with real-world problems as they try to come to terms with their new-found magical abilities.

Galloglass contains a horrifically well-realized thread about abuse. It’s not sensationalized in any way but is an unflinching analysis of how adults can easily undermine children so that they feel like nobody will help or listen to them. I was chilled reading it to my son, as I could see how he might easily feel like he couldn’t bring a similar problem to me. It was great to be able draw him in for a hug and reiterate what the book says, that no matter how busy I might seem, nothing is ever more important than if something or somebody is bothering him. (Note: The book also allows for the fact it could be a parent who is the root of the problem.) This was an unexpected real-life takeaway in what is essentially a fantasy book, and I am grateful to Scarlett Thomas for including this thread and depicting it so clearly.

Worldquake RPG?

As I mentioned above, the setting of the novels is excellent, and we gradually learn more about the twin worlds as the stories progress. What (more or less) starts out as “magic” in the first book becomes a multi-disciplined, multi-faceted mystical spectrum, that poses all-sorts of metaphysical questions. (Note: There are different types of magical skill, in Dragons Green, but it’s in the second two novels that the system really starts to come together.)

Magic, we learn, consists of “Kharakter,” “Art,” and “Shade,’ and each of the characters in the story has subtle differences to their magical identity. Finding out what type of magic user they are is an important voyage of discovery. Much of the series is devoted to Effie and her friends discovering the type of magic they wield.

The more of the series you read, the easier it is to draw parallels to character generation in D&D or other RPGs. Reading Galloglass, I was consumed by an overwhelming urge to start jotting down the wizard types, to begin the basis of a Worldquake based RPG. There’s enough world-building information in the books to do just this, and I wish I was 15 again, with the time to do it. You can also find out your own Kharakter and other fun things about the book at the Worldquake website.

If all that wasn’t enough, Thomas’s use of language is beautiful. The stories are great, and the setting magnificent but they are elevated to greater heights, thanks to the author’s turn of phrase and rich varied use of vocabulary. Despite this richness, the books are not overly-wordy, particularly considering their target audience. Your child will learn some new words reading Worldquake, but they won’t be put off reading them.  I’ve read all three books aloud to my children, and they were absolutely riveted by the narrative’s cadence and vocabulary.

I can’t overstate how much my boys and I have enjoyed these books. As I said at the top of the review, these are possibly the best books we’ve shared together. They’re perfect for Potter fans and great for people who love urban fantasy. Yes, they’re children’s books but the rich use of language and deep philosophical underpinnings of the magic system will give adults much food for thought too. Scarlett Thomas has 10 or so books to her name, these three for children and several more for adults (including the recently published Oligarchy, which I’ve yet to pick up.) Choose one, read it, come back for the rest. You won’t be disappointed.

You can pick up Dragon’s Green, the first book in the Worldquake series, here in the US, and here, in the UK.

If you enjoyed this review, check out more book reviews, here and my other Word Wednesday posts, here.

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